Martin Luther King's tryst with truth in Kerala

Martin Luther King's tryst with truth in Kerala
The Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Washington, DC, United States.

Nobel Peace Prize-winning American Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr was accidentally treated to an unforgettable philosophical experience in Thiruvananthapuram on February 22 ,1959.

The visit to Kerala 60 years ago provided unique insightful moments for King to strengthen his convictions for the civil rights movement in America, historical documents reveal.

King and his wife Coretta Scott King visited Kerala as part of their month-long India visit. After the State luncheon with the then Chief Minister E M S Namboothirippad, King was invited to a school in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) that afternoon.

King was ceremoniously welcomed by the school authorities and students, most of them children of former untouchables. When it was time for a formal meeting to begin, the school principal made a speech and introduced the civil rights leader to the students with these words : "Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America."

Big shock

King was taken aback. He did not expect to be addressed as an untouchable! Apparently hurt, he pondered over that shocking attribute: 'a fellow untouchable'!

King knew very well about the caste system and 'Harijans' from Mahatma Gandhi, his guiding light in nonviolence. He knew that untouchables of India were mistreated and segregated. That afternoon in Kerala, as he was being introduced to the young descendants of former untouchables, he experienced a sudden flash of enlightenment, details of which he revealed only after a long silence of six years.

That was the occasion of a sermon he delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, in the US state of Georgia on July 4, 1965. While referring to his famous "I Have A Dream" speech and how his great dream had often turned into a nightmare, he suddenly started narrating his unforgettable experience in Kerala:

Martin Luther King Jr's tryst with truth in Kerala
Nobel Peace Prize-winning American Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

I remember when Mrs. King and I were in India, we journeyed down one afternoon to the southernmost part of India, the state of Kerala, the city of Trivandrum. That afternoon I was to speak in one of the schools, what we would call high schools in our country, and it was a school attended by and large by students who were the children of former untouchables. Now you know in India, there was the caste system - and India has done a marvelous job in grappling with this problem - but you had your full caste and individuals were in one of the castes. And then you had some sixty or seventy million people who were considered outcasts. They were the untouchables; they could not go places that other people went; they could not do certain things. And this was one of the things that Mahatma Gandhi battled - along with his struggle to end the long night of colonialism - also to end the long night of the caste system and caste untouchability. You remember some of his great fasts were around the question of making equality a reality for the Harijans, as they were called, the "untouchables." He called them the children of God, and he even adopted an untouchable as his daughter. He demonstrated in his own personal life and in his family that he was going to revolt against a whole idea. And I remember that afternoon when I stood up in that school. The principal introduced me and then as he came to the conclusion of his introduction, he says, "Young people, I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America." And for the moment I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable.

Pretty soon my mind dashed back across the mighty Atlantic. And I started thinking about the fact that at that time no matter how much I needed to rest my tired body after a long night of travel, I couldn’t stop in the average motel of the highways and the hotels of the cities of the South. I started thinking about the fact that no matter how long an old Negro woman had been shopping downtown and got a little tired and needed to get a hamburger or a cup of coffee at a lunch counter, she couldn’t get it there. I started thinking about the fact that still in too many instances, Negroes have to go to the back of the bus and have to stand up over empty seats. I started thinking about the fact that my children and the other children that would be born would have to go to segregated schools. I started thinking about the fact: twenty million of my brothers and sisters were still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in an affluent society. I started thinking about the fact: these twenty million brothers and sisters were still by and large housed in rat-infested, unendurable slums in the big cities of our nation, still attended inadequate schools faced with improper recreational facilities. And I said to myself, "Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable." And this is the evilness of segregation: it stigmatizes the segregated as an untouchable in a caste system. We hold these truths to be self-evident, if we are to be a great nation, that all men (all men) are created equal. God’s black children are as significant as his white children. "We hold these truths to be self-evident." One day we will learn this.

(These excerpts from the transcript of the sermon are from the King Papers collection at King Institute, Stanford University, California, US ).

Martin Luther King Jr's tryst with truth in Kerala
The Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Park in Washington, DC, United States.

An eye-opener

Martin Luther King Jr's tryst with truth in Kerala
Martin Luther King Jr's quote engraved in his Memorial Park near Washington, DC.

Most significantly, King held India close to his heart for many reasons, including his unique experience in Kerala. My research interest in King's Kerala visit was triggered by the visit of his son Martin Luther King III in 2009. The son of the illustrious civil rights leader was retracing his father's 'pilgrimage to India'. (King famously described his travel to India as a pilgrimage, he said that he could not be a tourist in the land of Mahatma Gandhi). After tracing the news reports published in Malayala Manorama daily back issues, I got in touch with the King Institute. I was also informed that King's school visit in Thiruvananthapuram was an unscheduled event. An unscheduled event turned out to be an eye-opener for the great leader!

From Thiruvananthapuram, King and his entourage went to Kanyakumari. His experiences in Kanyakumari as he watched the beautiful sunset in serene meditative silence, are well documented his autobiography:

On February 22, Mrs. King and I journeyed down to a city in India called Trivandrum. Then we went from Trivandrum down to a point known as Cape Comorin. This is where the mass of India ends and the vast rolling waters of the ocean have their beginning. It is one of the most beautiful parts of all the world. Three great bodies of water meet together in all of their majestic splendor: the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean.

I remember how we went out there and looked at the big old rocks, a sight that was truly incredible, out into the waters, out into the ocean. Seated on a huge rock that slightly protruded into the ocean, we were enthralled by the vastness of the ocean and its terrifying immensities. We looked at the waves of those great bodies of water as they unfolded in almost rhythmic suspension. As the waves crashed against the base of the rock on which we were seated, an oceanic music brought sweetness to the ear. To the west we saw the magnificent sun, a red cosmic ball of fire, appear to sink into the very ocean itself. Just as it was almost lost from sight, Coretta touched me and said, "Look, Martin, isn't that beautiful!" I looked around and saw the moon, another ball of scintillating beauty. As the sun appeared to be sinking into the ocean, the moon appeared to be rising from the ocean. When the sun finally passed completely beyond sight, darkness engulfed the earth, but in the east the radiant light of the rising moon shone supreme. This was, as I said, one of the most beautiful parts in all the world, and that happened to be one of those days when the moon was full. This is one of the few points in all the world where you can see the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon simultaneously.

I looked at that and something came to my mind and I had to share it with Coretta, Dr. Reddick, and other people who were accompanying us around at that point. God has the light that can shine through all the darkness. We have experiences when the light of day vanishes, leaving us in some dark and desolate midnight moments when our highest hopes are turned into shambles of despair or when we are victims of some tragic injustice and some terrible exploitation. During such moments our spirits are almost overcome by gloom and despair, and we feel that there is no light anywhere. But ever and again, we look toward the east and discover that there is another light which shines even in the darkness, and "the spear of frustration" is transformed "into a shaft of light."

Martin Luther King Jr's tryst with truth in Kerala
Martin Luther King Jr addressing the audience at an event held on August 28, 1963, in Washington, DC, United States. Photo: AFP
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